Richard Russo is an American novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls which came out in 2001. That Old Cape Magic was published in 2009. I remember buying it back then but I’m not entirely sure whether because of a review or a blog post. At the time, I hadn’t heard of Richard Russo but liked the idea of a book about memories, set mostly at Cape Cod.
The book begins with Griffin driving to the Cape to attend his daughter’s friend’s wedding. He’s carrying the urn with his father’s ashes in his trunk. He wants to scatter the ashes at the Cape. Normally his wife Joy should have been with him but because of a minor argument, he’s on his own and in a bad mood. The moment he crosses Sagamore Bridge, which will lead him to the Cape, he starts singing That Old Black Magic, or rather, as his parents used to sing, That Old Cape Magic. This opens the door to memories of his childhood and suddenly this isn’t a book about a middle-aged man in a possible marriage crisis, but the story of his complicated parents. Parents, who failed to live the life they longed for. Instead of being professors at a minor college in the “Mid-fucking-West”, they wanted to be at an elite university with a summer house at the Cape. As a substitute, they spend every summer at the Cape, renting a house. Depending on their fluctuating income, the house was either shabby or decent.
We’re immediately introduced to Griffin’s mother and can see why she’s difficult.
Griffin’s mother loathed grading papers, too, of course. Who didn’t? But she was meticulous about correcting errors, offering style and content suggestions in the margins, asking pointed, often insulting, questions (How long did you work on this?) and then answering them herself (Not long, one hopes, given the result).
The book has two parts, one set at Cape Cod, the other in Coastal Maine. Both are about a wedding and, in both instances, Griffin has urns with him. First his father’s, then his father’s and his mother’s.
Odd that the future should be so difficult to bring into focus when the past, uninvited, offered itself up so easily for inspection.
Told in flashbacks, we get to know both his parents and Griffin. Griffin suffered and still suffers because of his parents, two academic snobs, who were judgemental, sarcastic, and narcissistic. They had a way of judging people and things that was very cruel. At the same time, they were deeply disappointed in themselves. While they didn’t judge themselves openly, it was clear from the way they spoke about other people and how they rated things. The most telling was the way they rated the cottages and houses at Cape Cod, where they felt they should be able to live. Either it was “Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift” or “Can’t Afford It.” Basically, nothing was ever right or attainable. Because of that, back in the Mid-West, they also never bought their own house but always rented furnished places which they treated with disregard, breaking and staining things.
The drive back to the Mid-fucking-west was always brutal, his parents barely speaking to each other, as if suddenly recalling last year’s infidelities, or maybe contemplating whom they’d settle for this year. Sex, if you went by Griffin’s parents, definitely took a backseat to real estate on the passion gauge.
They are unlikable characters but not free of their own tragedy. It’s not their fault that their dreams weren’t fulfilled. But it’s their fault that they can’t move past it. They felt that they were better than what they got but not as good as what they wanted.
Griffin’s life turned out differently but is also not entirely successful. He started as screen writer, but only wrote cheap made-for-TV scripts and finally left L.A. and became a professor of screenwriting. Griffin always thought that he was different, but his interior monologues show clearly, he’s not only quoting his parents or hearing, especially his mother’s voice, but he’s a little like them too. He frowns upon simple people, easily calls someone a moron. This leads to conflicts with his wife Joy who comes from a family that’s anything but academic.
Griffin dismissed their (his parents) snobbery and unearned sense of entitlement, but swallowed whole the rationale on which it was based (Can’t Afford It; Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift).
Weddings often trigger hidden feelings about marriage and life in general and it’s no different here. The first leads to total emotional chaos, while the second, his daughter’s wedding, one year later, turns into a farce.
In the comment section of a post about funny novels, Tom from Wuthering Expectations suggested Russo’s campus novel Straight Man. After reading That Old Cape Magic, and especially the hilarious scenes during the second wedding, I’m keen on finally reading it. The mean and snarky comments of Griffins mother often made me chuckle, but the scenes at the wedding rehearsal made me laugh out loud.
When I started this book, I expected something different. Something more lyrical, more atmospheric. But that’s not the way Russo writes. There’s a subtlety here but its more psychological, sarcastic, and humorous. I think it says a lot about a book when someone like me, who prefers lyrical, atmospheric books, ended up enjoying this as much as I did. It’s not only funny but says so much about family dynamics, marriage, broken dreams, family rituals, coming to terms with the past, and also the bond between parents and children and between spouses.
For anyone who has complicated parents or who has or had to deal with someone who is both judgemental and always seems to feel entitled, this will ring very true.
I attached a short video in which Richard Russo speaks about That Old Cape Magic and tells how this book, which started out as a short story, turned into a novel. It’s not only a good intro to the book but says a lot about the creative process.
If you’re looking for a funny novel – here’s the link to my post on Funny Novels again. It’s a great resource as many people added suggestions.